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‘Winning Time’ Fact Check: Did Magic Johnson Really Almost Reject the Lakers’ Offer?

The first episode of the HBO drama puts its own spin on how Magic came to play for Los Angeles

This article contains spoilers for Episode 1 of “Winning Time.”

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is an epic retelling of the Lakers’ Showtime Era, a decade that was defined by a string of NBA championship wins, fast-break offense and Hollywood flair. Things kicked off in 1979, when business mogul Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) bought the team and the Lakers selected Earvin “Magic” Johnson as the first overall pick of the NBA draft.

Those two events dominate the pilot episode of “Winning Time,” which premiered Sunday, March 6 on HBO (and is streaming on HBO Max). Much like the Showtime Era itself, it’s a fun and flashy display that remains mostly faithful to the facts contained in Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime,” while taking a fair amount of creative license.

If Episode 1 (titled “The Swan”) left you wondering how Magic’s path to purple and gold actually rolled out, read on.

What happens in the first episode of “Winning Time”?

For a quick refresher, the premiere follows Jerry Buss as he hatches and executes a plan to purchase the Lakers from owner Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O’Keefe). Everyone in Buss’ life and the world of pro basketball thinks he’s crazy: the Lakers have had a tumultuous few years and Buss is new to sports ownership. Still, he pools together enough loans, cash and property (including the Chrysler Building) to become majority owner.

At the same time, Michigan State point guard Magic Johnson is poised to become the next NBA superstar. A coin toss with the Chicago Bulls determines that the Lakers will have the first pick at the upcoming NBA draft. Buss and Cooke fly Magic and his father, Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) to Los Angeles to see if they might reach a deal ahead of the draft. Grappling with leaving his family and his girlfriend Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) behind in Michigan, Magic goes back and forth about whether or not he’s ready to put pen to paper and join the team.

Did Magic Johnson really almost turn down the Lakers’ offer?

During his visit to Los Angeles, Magic is treated like a celebrity, wined and dined around town by Jerry Buss. However, Lakers point guard Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon, the real Nixon’s son) seems to be immune to his charms. At a party, Norm easily outscores Magic during a pickup game in front of the guests, and essentially tells him to go back to where he came from. A defeated Magic starts to get cold feet and tells his dad and Buss that he wants to go back to school in Michigan for another year.

According to Pearlman, it’s true that there was a 50/50 chance Magic would have packed his things and headed back to Michigan State – but not for the reasons depicted in the show. “Had the coin landed heads,” he writes, “Johnson would have returned to Michigan State for his junior season.” Johnson once told the LA Times that he simply “wouldn’t have played” in Chicago, adding that “The only reason I came out was to play with Kareem and the Lakers.”

As for Norm Nixon, it’s unlikely that the pickup game ever took place (and also unlikely that Nixon, who stands at seven inches shorter than Johnson, would’ve bested him so easily). However, his jealousy and unhappiness about having to share the floor with the charismatic new point guard is discussed in the book. “From the moment the Lakers drafted Johnson, most members of the team knew Nixon’s days as a point guard were numbered,” Pearlman writes.

In “Winning Time,” the moment Magic changes his mind about rejecting the Lakers’ offer is when Buss “accidentally” leaves him alone in the Forum. He wanders around the locker room and eventually finds his way to the court, where he imagines himself scoring as the crowd goes wild. That symbolic solo walkthrough actually did happen, although it was after he gave his first press conference, rather than beforehand.

Did the sand dabs scene happen in real life?

There’s a pivotal scene in which Buss, outgoing Lakers owner Cooke, Magic and his father meet for lunch in Los Angeles. Cooke orders sand dabs for the table, but Buss knows they have no appetite for them and orders hamburgers for the table, to Cooke’s dismay. It’s an apt analogy for how the Johnsons feel like fish out of water in Los Angeles, and a great display of Buss’ charisma and perceptiveness.

While it’s true that Cooke tried to win them over with the “bland and crusty” fish, Magic is the one who upset him by refusing to eat it and politely asking for a burger instead.

Did Magic Johnson actually negotiate a higher starting salary?

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HBO

At the lunch, Cooke asks about Magic’s ideal salary. Armed with the knowledge that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was making $650,000 a year, he asks for $600,000. Cooke replies that $400,000 is their final offer, and Magic says he’ll have to think about it.

Later, in their hotel room, Earvin Sr. scolds his son for being greedy and encourages him to accept the amount they’re offering. By the time Magic signs to the team, he’s negotiated his way up to a $500,000 salary.

This is more or less exactly how it went down in real life. When he was originally proposed $400,000, Magic actually told Cooke, “I guess I’ll be going back to school” – and that’s what got Cooke to increase his offer.

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is streaming exclusively on HBO Max.

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